DETROIT – A Toyota-Microsoft joint venture suggests automobiles quickly are evolving from conveyance to “companion.”

Thilo Koslowski, vice president and lead auto industry analyst for Gartner, a California-based consultancy, makes the observation while serving as moderator of a webcast featuring Toyota President Akio Toyoda and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

The executives use the event to announce the formation of Toyota Media Service, a $12 million (¥1 billion) partnership to develop advanced vehicle telematics from Microsoft’s Windows Azure computing platform.

Azure enables “cloud” computing, whereby data is managed by a third party and does not reside on a user’s hardware. As a result, consumers can be in constant contact with their vehicles.

“Starting in 2012, customers who purchase one of Toyota’s electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles will be able to connect via the cloud to control and monitor their car from anywhere – safely and conveniently,” Ballmer says.

Toyota has confirmed the 2012 launch of a plug-in version of its Prius midsize sedan and an all-electric RAV4 small cross/utility vehicle. The all-electric IQ minicar also is on the horizon.

“Customers will be able to turn on the heat or AC in their car while their vehicle is plugged into the grid, or dynamically monitor miles until the next charging station right from their GPS system,” Ballmer says, adding smartphone applications also will deliver updates on state-of-charge and other vehicle maintenance needs.

General Motors’ OnStar telematics arm provides this service for the Chevrolet Volt extended range electric vehicle. Asked if the Toyota Media Service EV platform will require a subscription, as does OnStar, Toyoda is vague, adding, “Customers must realize the value for that.”

Toyota Media Service will make its debut in Japan and the U.S., but the eventual rollout will be far-reaching, Toyoda says. Markets such as India hold significant potential, he adds, reinforcing his assertion that the new telematics system need not be limited to EVs.

The Indian market is dominated by conventionally powered, entry-level vehicles. Notably, Microsoft’s Azure platform made its commercial debut there 13 months ago.

Ballmer shifts uneasily in his seat when asked if its Toyota partnership signals a technological leap beyond the acclaimed Sync telematics system Microsoft developed for Ford. Sync, he says, is “different.” The Ford system is more dependent on components that are resident in the vehicle.

Toyoda also says the new platform poses no threat to Entune, which debuts this year on a larger version of the Prius, dubbed the Prius V.

Powered by the QNX Software system that supports Research in Motion’s PlayBook tablet computer, Entune links mobile phones to in-vehicle displays to access information ranging rom real-time traffic-alert providers to Pandora’s Internet radio music library.

“The vision of our company is to earn smiles from the customers through our cars,” Toyoda says.